Some of Bach’s adaptions from earlier instrumental works for voices are not entirely successful. They often seem gratuitously dense and opaque. But the arrangement of the Overture to the Fourth Orchestral suite with chorus that opens the Cantata BWV 110 works so marvelously well, that any performance of the suite that one hears after knowing the cantata seems almost incomplete. The two grave sections are left in tact. At the 9/8 allegro a dotted “laughing’ theme is added to the running triplets of the instruments. It is ingenious to have this dotted figure instead of an actual literal doubling; in that way the voices are always clearly audible. Bach uses a ripieno, concertante separation of the voices in the chorus. The two concertante section line up with the concertante parts of the orchestral suite thus further clarifying the five section structure of the Allegro.

The tenor aria #2 with two obbligato flutes is a perfect jewel. It’s light feathery quality is emphasized by coming off of the big loud chorus. The wonderful “sewing machine’ quality of the flutes is in perfect contrast to the easy conversational quality of the voice part. A tiny five bar accompanied recitative for bass leads us into the subtle alto aria with oboe d’amore obbligato #4. Bach makes the distinction of the sinful child of man with the redemption through Christ by having the heavy mournful duple melody liberate itself into triplets. This dichotomy of character continues throughout the aria. Bach never lets his Christmas music be entirely joyful. There is a wonderful stubborn quality about the voice part that skillfully portrays the foolishness of mankind.

In complete contrast is the heavenly duet for the angels on the text “Glory to God in the highest.” This is an arrangement of one of the four hymn interpolations that were included by Bach in his original Eb version of the Magnificat. Interestingly this is not just a translation into German, for the original text was “Virga Jesse.” It is also transposed up a third which gives it much more brilliance. Like all of the Latin Hymn arrangements, the phrases are begun simply but gradually move into melismas of great length and complexity. It is curious that after hearing this version one is somewhat disappointed in the Virga Jesse. It is as if Bach found the right text for the music after it had already been composed. This duet is among the most difficult pieces to sing in all of Bach, perhaps the reason why this cantata is in general not performed very often.

The bass aria #6 for trumpet, oboes and strings is an energetic, bracing affair. It is the only full da capo in the cantata and certainly functions as a balance to the weight of the opening chorus. All of the musical allusions in the text are cleverly illustrated. Particularly the long ornamental melismas by the violins that accompany the line “and you, you devotional strings." The wonderful chorale “Wir Christenleut" ends the cantata. It is most remarkable for the amazing variety of its phrase lengths. It appears too seldom in the cantatas.

©Craig Smith

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